Gun Control, Politics and Country Music: There Is a Path Forward
After two of the worst mass shootings in American history took place just over a month apart, the ongoing debate about gun control is more vital and urgent than ever, and country music artists are in a unique position to play a leadership role at a critical time.
At least 58 people were killed and more than 500 others injured when a lone shooter opened fire on the audience at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. On Nov. 5, at least 26 people were killed by another lone gunman in a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, including at least 12 children. The victims ranged in age from 17 months to 77 years.
Country music and country artists have been dragged unwillingly into the national argument over gun control, which has not previously impacted the genre in such a direct way. And while an overwhelming majority of Americans support a number of common sense gun control laws that experts say would significantly impact the number of gun deaths in America, even the least mention of gun control causes enormous, almost violent partisan debate not only among lawmakers jockeying for political position, but ordinary citizens.
Nowhere is that more evident than in country music, a genre that has always leaned more conservative in its demographic. Several prominent country artists have publicly shared the view that tighter gun control laws would not affect the rate of gun violence, including Charlie Daniels, Craig Morgan, Justin Moore and most recently, Aaron Lewis.
But the tide is shifting slightly even within the genre, where artists have long been afraid of publicly expressing social or political positions that are different from those of their audience for fear of losing fans.
Josh Abbott Band guitarist Caleb Keeter was a fierce Second Amendment advocate for years, but admits the experience of being pinned down while the shooter conducted his rampage at the Route 91 Harvest Festival changed his mind. The band members carry legal firearms on the road, but "we couldn't touch them for fear police might think that we were part of the massacre and shoot us," Keeter tweeted after the shooting, ending with, "We need gun control RIGHT. NOW."
Kurt Bardella is one prominent voice in country music who has been calling for common sense gun control after the Las Vegas shooting. Bardella has bona fide political experience; he served as senior adviser, spokesman and deputy communications director for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its Chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), director of communications for Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) and press secretary for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). He is also a former media spokesman for the ultra-conservative website Breitbart. Bardella currently runs a prominent country music tip sheet called the Morning Hangover, and he has been out beating the drum for common sense gun regulations in high-level media appearances including MSNBC, USA Today, CNN and more.
"The reality is every single person at that concert [in Las Vegas] could have been armed and it would not have affected the outcome," Bardella tells Taste of Country. "As we learn more about how this heinous act was carried out, we need to have an honest conversation about how existing gun and ammunition laws were taken advantage of and to identify thoughtful ways to prevent anyone else from successfully carrying out this kind of hateful act. Preserving the Second Amendment and accepting common sense reforms are not mutually exclusive."
Bardella cites ammunition, background checks, semi-automatic weapons, mental health and more as areas he'd like to see a bi-partisan conversation around, likening the difficult topics to the kinds of debates America had to go through in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
"If the Las Vegas shooter had been a minority or from a Muslim religious background, no one would be saying it's too soon to talk about terrorism or proactive steps that should be taken to prevent future attacks," he points out.
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Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which she launched the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. The group conducts the kind of detailed research into gun deaths that she says the U.S. government is prevented from doing due to the influence of the gun lobby. Watts says their data makes clear that one specific type of legislation has the greatest impact in states where it's been enacted.
"We know that background checks is the single most effective thing that will save American lives, in terms of gun safety laws," she tells us. After mandatory background checks on gun sales narrowly failed in the U.S. Senate in 2013, Moms Demand Action took the fight to the state level, and have since advocated successfully for background checks in seven states. That brings the total number of states requiring background checks to 19.
“When you look at those states, you see domestic violence shootings and homicides cut almost in half," Watts says. "You see police homicides with a gun by a civilian cut almost in half. You see gun trafficking cut almost in half. Interestingly, you see gun suicides cut almost in half, and you see general gun homicides reduced significantly. So we know that those laws work.”
She cites gun show and internet loopholes as two primary concerns for Moms Demand Action, calling them "an easy way for domestic abusers, terrorists, felons, criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to get guns.”
Hannah Shearer is an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and she adds that laws requiring sales of multiple weapons to be reported could have made a difference in Las Vegas, where the shooter "was not on the radar of law enforcement despite having purchased 33 guns in the year prior to his shooting spree."
Keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers is another main goal, and while federal law does prohibit a convicted domestic abuser from owning a gun, "it defines a domestic abuser only as a spouse or as an ex-spouse," Watts tells us. "It does not include stalkers or dating partners, and dating partners are actually the No. 1 killer of intimate partners with guns."
Additionally, federal law does not give state law enforcement the ability to demand that abusers relinquish guns they own; it only prevents them from purchasing.more.
"So if you’re a domestic abuser and you already have guns, there’s no one that says you have to give those up. And even if you are a domestic abuser, in 31 states you can just go to a gun show and get a gun with no questions asked."
To address that, Moms Demand Action has gone into 24 states and helped pass stronger laws that broaden the definition of what a domestic abuser is and let local law enforcement take abusers' guns. They succeeded most recently in Rhode Island, and they're working on similar legislation in Pennsylvania.
Watts points to child access prevention laws and extreme risk protection orders — which would allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns from people by court order if family or friends fear they pose a risk to themselves or others — as other possible areas of debate, but interestingly, Moms Demand Action are not currently advocating for an assault weapons ban.
"We know that assault weapons are only used in about 11 percent of shootings," she says, pointing out the political impossibilities of advocating for a ban and the fact that gun manufacturers can figure out how to get around such a ban. That's exactly what happened in Vegas, where the shooter augmented semi-automatic rifles with a bump stock device that enabled them to rapid fire more like a machine gun.
"Obviously, having an assault weapon puts the 'mass' in mass shooting, but the daily violence that kills 93 Americans — about 33,000 every year — those are handguns, and that’s why the background check piece is the most critical component," Watts emphasizes. "Our goal is always to do whatever will save the most lives."
Though Watts would love to see more action at a federal level, she points to the influence of the NRA and the gun lobby in Congress as a key sticking point. "We are the only developed nation in the world with a gun lobby, and we’ve sort of given them carte blanche to write our nation’s gun laws at the federal and state level for decades," she opines. "This is the logical outcome."
Moms Demand Action's battle plan is similar to that of the marriage equality movement, which started in statehouses all over the country and built consensus state by state until marriage equality succeeded at a national level due to changing attitudes and building pressure.
“I really have come to believe that Congress isn’t where the work starts. It’s where it ends," Watts states. "When you elect a president whose largest outside donor is the NRA, it makes it that much harder to work at a federal level. You’re mainly playing defense. And that’s what we’ll be doing for the foreseeable future at the federal level.”
Bardella agrees that focusing on states is the right approach.
"If the states are doing something and there’s a rash of them, then maybe that should be national policy," he explains. "I always think that we can look to certain states for leadership, and they can pave the way and be that trendsetter for what public policy will look like. Every single policy in this country at a national level originated in a state first.”
He's encouraged that, though little action has yet taken place after Las Vegas in terms of actual legislative debate about gun control, "The starting point is that there has been an open mind approach from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, as we learn more about the kinds of munitions the shooter used to attack everyone in Las Vegas."
All sides appear to agree, at least in theory, that looking at bump stock restrictions is worthwhile, for instance, and Bardella also points to gun show loopholes as an area that could see some consensus, along with background checks and restricting access to those with mental health issues.
"As a gun owner, who do you want to have a gun?" he asks rhetorically. "And what type of safeguards would you want in place for the person who lives next door to you? What should they go through to be able to have a weapon while living in the same neighborhood as your kids?"
Shearer agrees that there's a consensus about bump stock restrictions, but adds, "While that’s encouraging, it’s disappointing because it’s that isn’t a law that’s likely to have a big impact. It may have reduced the number of people hurt and killed in the [Las Vegas] shooting, but the shooter could have still used the same weapons that he used without the enhancement. So hopefully there will also be bi-partisan consensus around thinking a little bigger than just that. One proposal that could draw support is just to increase the funding that the ATF has right now to enforce our existing gun laws and maybe enforce a new law like a reporting requirement.”
Watts says Moms Demand Action are opposing bills that propose de-regulating the use of silencers and enacting concealed carry reciprocity, a proposal NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre advocated for when he stated that the organization might support bump stock restrictions.
Calling the proposal "incredibly craven," she says, "This is a bill they’ve tried to pass three times and failed. Basically, the bill would make the weakest state laws the law of the land around permitting.”
She cites Alabama as an example of a state whose residents would no longer be held to existing laws in other states they travel to if concealed carry reciprocity passes.
“In Alabama, you can get a gun permit when you’re only 18, you can have domestic violence in your background, you can have DUIs in your history, you do not have to have any live fire training at all. It’s one of the weakest permitting standards in the country. And then that would apply across all state lines," she explains. "So any strong laws that have been passed in any state would be totally upended, because if you lived in Alabama, you could just take your gun and go right into Denver. You could take it into New York City or San Francisco. And that’s the NRA’s dream. But certainly, concealed carry reciprocity would only make shootings in America worse.”
Shearer says de-regulating silencers is "another really dangerous proposal, especially when you think about how that would lead to more use of silencers in mass shootings. Had a silencer been used in the mass shooting in Las Vegas, it would have been much harder for police to track down the shooter’s location, or for people to hear shots and run to safety. The policies the NRA is advocating for are risky, and could make mass shootings more frequent or more lethal."
Watts, Shearer and Bardella all agree that more Americans getting informed about and involved in gun control issues is key.
"I think it’s important to remember that about 36 percent of Americans are gun owners, and about three percent of Americans own half of all the guns. So the NRA has convinced this minority that they need an arsenal," Watts says. "Also important to remember that nine out of 10 gun owners do not belong to the NRA. And when you look at broader polling, 90 percent of all Americans support stronger gun laws like background checks. Polling done by Republican pollster Frank Luntz shows that 74 percent of NRA members support a background check on every gun sale. The vast majority of Americans agree on this. I don’t know that there’s another issue in America where there is stronger agreement than for stronger gun laws. What we’ve allowed to happen is for the vocal minority to be the voice of this issue."
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She says learning where your lawmakers stand on these issues and speaking out is essential. Americans can text REJECT to 64433, which enables them to be connected to their member of Congress. Men and women can join Moms Demand Action by texting ACT to 64433. The organization will reach out with details about how to get involved in your area.
Congressman Jim Cooper [D-TN] represents Tennessee's fifth district and Nashville, and in a written statement to Taste of Country, Cooper, who has earned a C- rating from the NRA, tells us, "The only thing people should have to do at a concert is enjoy the music. There should be no fear. Congress should do whatever it takes to keep people safe. Most Americans think that background checks, metal detectors and things like that are helpful in keeping us safe.”
Bardella encourages moderation and careful dialogue, pointing out that part of the reason there has been so little forward motion on common sense gun control is because conservatives and liberals always lead with their entrenched talking points and dig in. He says conservatives "need to move away from the mentality that the discussion about quote-unquote gun control will lead to the government literally taking away your guns. That’s not gonna happen. That’s unconstitutional. We need to move away from that all-or-nothing absolutism."
He adds that liberals and the media need to be more careful about using unflattering stereotypes, pushing back against the widespread characterization of country music as a "gun culture" by pointing out that songs about guns comprise a tiny slice of the overall subject matter in the genre.
"People need to be respectful on both sides of the conversation about the lifestyle and heritage that people are coming from, and recognize that in country music, guns have a very different connotation than in other parts of this country," he says. "For many, these are almost family heirlooms; they’re passed down from grandfather to father and father to son. They’re a very positive thing. They are not negative, they are not thought of as something to inflict harm on innocent people. Sometimes people on the other side of this conversation play too much into stereotypes without understanding the community that they’re judging."
Bardella believes that this is a "leadership moment" in country music. Few stars have been willing to step up in public on the side of common sense gun control, but that's slowly changing.
Rosanne Cash penned a scathing op-ed in the New York Times calling out the NRA after Las Vegas, and calling on county stars to step up publicly to denounce the organization. Sheryl Crow has been vocal about the need to hold lawmakers and the NRA accountable, adding that people who do not support an assault weapons ban "cannot claim to be pro-life," while Chely Wright tweeted that she was "ashamed of my country" over the inaction on gun control, writing that "nothing will change" after the church shooting in Texas.
But by far the most prominent country artists to advocate for gun control so far are Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who opened up in an interview with Billboard one day after the 2017 CMA Awards. McGraw is an avid bird hunter, but says, "There is some common sense that’s necessary when it comes to gun control.They want to make it about the Second Amendment every time it’s brought up. It’s not about the Second Amendment."
"Military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians," Hill adds. "It’s everyone’s responsibility, including the government and the National Rifle Association, to tell the truth. We all want a safe country."
Bardella says the time is right for country artists to "do some self-assessment and advocate for what they believe in. I think if you leave silence, other people will assume your position for you, and that’s never a good thing. These artists have a right to speak about what they think and why, and in a case like this, there’s obviously a heightened public interest in that. If people disagree with Rosanne Cash, they should say so. If they agree with her, they should say so. I don’t think this is an issue that people can bury their heads in the sand and hope that it goes away."
Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Caleb Keeter and Justin Moore all declined to speak to Taste of Country for this article through representatives. Reps for Charlie Daniels, Craig Morgan and the NRA did not respond to interview requests.
UPDATE: Since this story was published in November of 2017, Congress has not acted on any gun control measures, including bump stock restrictions. NBC reports that states and individual cities are stepping into the leadership gap to enact their own policies. The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act has passed in the House of Representatives and is currently being debated in the Senate. The measure has the full support of President Trump, according to 60 Minutes.
On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., when a former student opened fire. CNN reports that three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have taken place in the last five months, and according to Everytown for Gun Safety, there have been 18 instances in which guns have been discharged in schools in the United States in the first two months of 2018 alone.
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